Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt and Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer have both emphasized that they want everyone involved with Tennessee football, including the fans, to stop looking back at the 2017 season, and instead, focus on what the future holds, beginning in the upcoming 2018 football season. For many fans, those requests have been difficult, especially as the Vols have yet to play a game under this new regime. At best, in this time bridging the abysmal 2017 campaign and the upcoming one for 2018, there is an opportunity to compare what is behind with what is in the present, and how it translates to the future. While there are many comparisons to make, some of the most intriguing ones involve comparing how Tennessee's old boss did things to the way the new boss handles them.
It is no secret that Vol Nation had soured on Butch Jones and the way he ran the program very early into the 2017 season. There had been years of the slogans, the personnel decisions, and the coaching decisions that drove fans mad. Enter Jeremy Pruitt, who in his limited, early impressions, has satisfied many Vol fans by coming across and being hailed nationally as a hugely respected X's and O's coach. Pruitt has also been recognized nationally for his recruiting and his ability to develop players. Add in that, while he doesn't shy away from the limelight, each time Coach Pruitt gives an interview you get the feeling he'd rather be on the field, whistle around his neck, breaking down tape, or deciding who to offer a scholarship, and you can see why the Tennessee faithful feel some optimism about their new coach. He loves coaching. He is just a football guy. He eats, sleeps, lives, and breathes the sport, coaching, and growing his players. His hiring brought immediate respect to a Volunteer program that had endured a historically difficult season and off season, from national media, other coaches, players, and recruits. There is a change in the culture on Rocky Top, and much of it has to do with the fact that Coach Pruitt does thinks differently than the man he is replacing.
One of the earliest changes Coach Pruitt made upon being hired was how and where he targeted recruits. Pruitt has long been respected as a man that has an eye for talent in the high school ranks. Part of this comes from the time he spent as a High School Coach in Alabama, honing his craft at that level of the sport, and part comes from his time being one of the most respected defensive coaches in all of college football. Jeremy Pruitt knows what good, SEC football players look like, and that confidence plays a part in one of the major changes he made early in his time at Tennessee: The way he approached Junior College recruits.
Tennessee wound up with four JUCO players in the 2018 recruiting class, and most of them had not been seen as viable options at Tennessee, for one reason or another, until Jeremy Pruitt was hired by the Vols. Upon being named head coach, Pruitt began recruiting the top of the JUCO ranks hard. Every day brought another story of an elite JUCO player, previously not even considering Tennessee, suddenly with the Vols as a top choice or finalist. Jeremy Pruitt was trusting both his eye for talent, and the eyes of the highly respected staff he had assembled, to infuse the Tennessee roster with his kind of talent, wherever he could get it. That meant the Vols had made a much greater impact in the JUCO ranks in recruiting than they had even two months before. What's more, Pruitt and Company landed several of the most highly rated JUCO players available this cycle, guys that fit what Pruitt wants to see the Vols become, players that are ready to make an impact on day one.
That day one impact is why some coaching staffs tend to shy away from JUCO players. In recruiting, if you offer a scholarship to a JUCO player, you are aware you are not going to have the opportunity as a staff to work with and develop a player for his entire college career. Regardless of the reason a player attended a Junior College, a coaching staff that decides to offer that player a scholarship is trusting that their evaluation of the talent is right. Time is limited with JUCO players, and coaches often can't afford to have them be extended project players, or else they have had much of their eligibility pass them by. Coaches need to feel confident JUCO players can step in and contribute immediately, with a major impact, particularly if they were a major priority in the recruiting cycle. Butch Jones had mixed results with JUCO players, famously landing Alvin Kamara, but also missing on several highly rated players that never made meaningful contributions. While Jones and his staff never shied away from targeting JUCO players, they never went after them as hard as Pruitt and his staff did in their first recruiting class at Tennessee.
The Vols signed four very talented JUCO players in the 2018 class that are all expected to make an immediate impact this fall, but they pursued several others very, very hard. This shows the confidence that Pruitt and his staff have in their ability to identify, develop, and maximize talent on the field. This confidence and skill, as well as the ability to recruit the JUCO ranks successfully, is one of the major differences in how Coach Pruitt is running the Tennessee football program versus the way Butch Jones ran it. Keeping that in mind, here is a brief look at the JUCO players Coach Pruitt added in this class, all players Vol fans should get to know, as they are primed and expected to make a difference early.
Dominick Wood-Anderson, Four Star Tight End, Arizona Western
Dominick Wood-Anderson ticks every box there is for an NFL style, dynamic, pass catching tight end. At six foot five and two hundred fifty-five pounds, Wood-Anderson has the ideal size for a tight end. What will keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night will be the speed that he pairs with that size. This young man not only flashes reliable hands, a player that can be a trusted security blanket for any quarterback, he regularly shows speed far more comparable to a wide receiver. Add in polished route running ability, as well as a natural feel for finding the holes in zone coverages, and it comes into focus why Wood-Anderson was so highly sought after. A young quarterback, like Jarret Guarantano for instance, loves to have a reliable, trusted tight end to get the ball to when they need a big conversion, or a play breaks down. Wood-Anderson not only provides that safety blanket, but the skills to turn the check down throw into a huge play with his speed and strength. Expect to see Wood-Anderson shine in Tyson Helton's offense this season, particularly off play action passes working the deep middle of the field. This young man has the potential to be a game breaker for the Volunteers this fall, and a player the offense is designed to highlight. Expect to hear his name early and often.
Jordan Allen, Four Star Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, City College of San Francisco
Listed at six foot four, two hundred thirty pounds, Jordan Allen looks to be made for the roll of an outside linebacker in Jeremy Pruitt's 3-4 defensive scheme. However, Allen is not just a pure linebacker. At the JUCO level, he regularly lined up with his hand in the dirt as an end in a 4-3 alignment. Coach Pruitt has already talked about the Vols using multiple defensive fronts this season, 3-4, 4-3, and at times four down lineman when they run a nickel or dime defense. All of that means that Jeremy Pruitt has a piece in Jordan Allen that he can move all over the field to cause chaos for opposing offenses. Allen has an impressive first step, and shows multiple pass rushing moves allowing him to not only get to the quarterback, but to play well against the run also. One of the challenges for Allen will be how he adjusts to his coverage responsibilities when asked to drop as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Given the various fronts Tennessee looks to utilize this season, expect to see Allen moved around regularly for the Tennessee defense, his versatility and pass rushing skills getting him on the field early and often. While Allen may not be a starter for Tennessee on defense, he should be expected to be on the field and contributing a great deal, particularly on passing downs. This is a young man opposing quarterbacks will want to have their offensive lineman always know the location of.
Emmit Gooden, Four Star Defensive Tackle, Independence Community College
If Emmit Gooden doesn't do anything else for the Vols this season, he will at least provide them with a new source of shade. At six foot four, three hundred five pounds, Gooden casts an imposing shadow on those unfortunate enough to line up across from him. Unfortunate because the Brownsville Tennessee native is much more than big, he is strong and startlingly quick off the ball for a man of his size. Gooden is a disruptive defensive tackle that, much like Allen, Coach Pruitt and Defensive Coordinator Kevin Sherrer will have the ability to move all over their multiple defensive fronts. The lynchpin of the 3-4 scheme Pruitt wants to run at Tennessee is the nose tackle in the base alignment. A good nose tackle must, above all else, command and handle a double team from the offensive line on every play. That ability is what the rest of the defense is built around, and even in the SEC, guys that can fill that role don't grow on trees. Emmit Gooden will be an option for the Vols at nose tackle, because of his size and strength, he can fill the role, made more dangerous by the quickness he shows for his size. In fact, Gooden's first step is so quick, don't be stunned to see him line up not only as a defensive tackle in a four-man front, but potentially as an end in Tennessee's base three-man base front. Gooden has tremendous talent, but his ability to fill multiple roles for Tennessee will make him very interesting to watch this fall.
Jahmir Johnson, Three Star Offensive Tackle, Arizona Western
It was no secret that Tennessee needed help along the offensive line going into the 2018 season, and Coach Pruitt and Offensive Line Coach Will Friend found several players to help the unit in the 2018 class. One of the most exciting came in the form of the six foot five, two hundred seventy-pound Jahmir Johnson. Johnson looks very lean for an SEC tackle, but the staff feels comfortable with him as they feel his frame can carry more weight, and because he is an outstanding athlete. Johnson shows himself to be plenty strong on tape, but he really shines when he can get out in space as a lead blocker or leading the way on a screen pass. This young man is an impressive athlete at his size, with surprising strength. Johnson may be a bit light right now, but he shows good drive when run blocking on tape, showing sufficient strength. Pruitt offered the young man a scholarship for a reason, and it wasn't to come warm the bench in Knoxville. Expect Johnson to fight for and likely win a starting tackle job by the time the season opens against West Virginia. It is difficult to see Johnson not ending up as part of the Vols' combination of five best offensive lineman in Charlotte.
These four JUCO players represented a different way of doing things for the Vols under Jeremy Pruitt, as well as serving to infuse the team with some of the type of players Pruitt wanted on his squad. That said, many expected Pruitt to push the JUCO ranks heavily in his first class, then back off in subsequent years. If the early appearance of the 2019 class is anything to go by, that may not be the case, as it appears Coach Pruitt intends to stay active in JUCO recruiting when his eyes show him talented players he trusts to fit his system and make his team immediately better. So, let's look at one of Tennessee's early commitments in the 2019 class, that just happens to be a highly touted JUCO player.
Lakia Henry, Four Star Inside Linebacker, Dodge City Community College
Henry is an absolute monster of a middle linebacker. He is listed at six foot one, two hundred twenty-seven pounds, but he looks and plays much larger than that. The Vidalia, Georgia native is a sideline to sideline machine, perfect for what Pruitt and Sherrer want to build in the Vols’ new 3-4 scheme. However, Henry is more than just a fast player, he is a vicious tackler who consistently delivers extraordinary blows to ball carriers. Henry isn’t an eraser in the middle, he’s an absolute destroyer. He is the kind of linebacker that delivers a blow, and an opponent stays hit for a few minutes after the initial contact. He has speed that allows him to cover tight ends and backs well in pass coverage and allows him to wreak havoc when he comes up the middle of the offensive line as a blitzer. Watching tape, there are similarities to AJ Johnson in the demeanor and style of play. While Henry has a smaller frame than Johnson, he is certainly capable of adding muscle mass, and is likely a bit faster than the former Vol. Henry looks to be a factor for Tennessee on defense the day he arrives on campus.
As the recruiting cycle wears on, we will see the Vols target other impact JUCO players that Coach Pruitt feels can make an immediate impact for the program. Tennessee is still competing for some of the most highly prized JUCO players in this cycle, as Jeremy Pruitt seeks out the players that will fit his way of doing things at Tennessee.